Ah, the politics of high school girls in an all girls catholic school…
What They Say
When Yumi Fukuzawa entered the Lillian Girls' Academy, a prestigious all-girls Catholic school in Tokyo, she never imagined she would catch the eye of beautiful and demure Sachiko Ogasawara, one of the school's most popular students. Now Sachiko has offered to be Yumi's sur - her "sister" and guide for all her years at the academy. The whole idea has Yumi completely flustered: After all, they hardly know each other! The entire campus is abuzz with rumors about the two of them, but Yumi is conflicted over accepting Sachiko's offer. While she admires Sachiko, being her sur would also mean constantly being at the center of the entire school's attention! Contains the complete 13-episode first season, plus the Season 1 "specials."
Maria Watches Over Us is presented with just a single audio track, which isn’t a surprise considering the limited appeal of the show to a larger audience. The Japanese stereo mix is encoded at 192kbps which serves the dialogue driven show pretty well. There isn’t even a lot of very noticeable music throughout the show so it‘s not a terribly dynamic piece. That said, the dialogue does come across very well here as it fills the center channel nicely and is problem free throughout. With the dialogue being so important, the clarity is spot on and the warmth of the characters comes through very well.
Originally airing in 2004, the transfer for this thirteen episode TV series is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. Like many shows of this nature, Maria Watches Over Us is one that tends to not have a lot of action or movement to it. It’s all about the atmosphere. The authoring for this is pretty good as the background and character animation maintains a solid feel even at lower bitrates simply because of the lack of motion. Colors are rich and vibrant when required and generally solid throughout. The main problem that shows up in the series is one that deals with the various panning motions that occur. During many of these, there is a noticeable amount of rolling line noise in the characters themselves, almost like cross coloration ready to bleed out. It’s distracting enough at times but is simply something that is likely a part of the source material itself and certainly not an authoring issue. It’s unfortunate that such an appealing show visually is like this however.
Nozomi Entertainment has once again done up a wonderful design. The series is made up of four thinpak cases inside a heavy chipboard box which will hopefully be carried through for all the seasons in some form. The box is particularly good as it captures the feel of the show just right. The front panel features a full length shot of Yumi and Sachiko together as they walk down the lane at the academy towards the statue of Maria while being framed in an elegant border. The logo looks great and the inclusion of the Lillian symbol adds to how right it all feels. The back of the box isn’t my favorite but it does fit as it shows an above view of most of the lead characters walking along from behind through the academy as the leaves fall around them.
The thinpak cases inside are designed similarly when it comes to the front covers. Each cover has the framed border that gives it that elegant feel while inside each volume has a different piece of artwork that has Yumi with one of the girls from the series. The continuity of it all is quite good and it has much the same pleasant and appealing feeling that the box itself provided. The back cover for each of the volumes has a basic structure across all of them with a few shots from the show down the left while the right has the overall summary of the premise and a listing of the episode numbers and titles along with what features can be found on that disc. The bottom has the basic technical grid which covers everything in good detail along with a few basic copyright listings. The covers are fairly light in general when it comes to how much is on the back but it has a simplicity that is very appealing and fits within the show.
The menu design for Maria Watches Over Us is one that pulls easily from the well designed packaging as it uses the cover art framing on each volume as the centerpiece to each menu. The layout is very easy to navigate with the selections along the right side that load quickly and are laid out smoothly. Submenus load quickly and language selection is a breeze depending on what you want out of it as it offers a subtitle track without honorifics and one with it. This may confuse some people at first, but a series like this is one that is appealing far more to the hardcore fans who will understand it more than the couple of casual buyers who will likely end up with it. And if anything, it may get them to be a bit more interested in the nuances of the show which is a positive.
The extras for this release are fairly standard for the most part but there are some standout pieces as well. The standard material comes in the form of the character bio pages and the basic liner notes that are included. The liner notes are welcome as the series progresses and gets past the honorifics but their usefulness will of course be determined by how conversant you are with… schoolgirls. The best extras, which are thankfully spread across each of the volumes, are the bonus stories. These take the cast of the show and show them actually acting out their scenes in a more amusing design and running through basic bloopers. They’re very amusing and help to balance out the dramatic content of the show beautifully.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on a series of light novels by Oyuki Konno, the ongoing books have been adapted into a couple of anime series now with this being the first thirteen episode one. Titled Maria-sama ga Miteru in Japan, the first episode has been provided as a sample to check out and it certainly stands out in a number of ways.
The premise behind the series is one is quite simple as it focuses on the Lillian Academy, an all girls Catholic school. Within the school there is a tradition that is carried on to this day where students from the second year onward take on the role of big sisters for the first year students. Through various little ceremonies and traditions, they choose one who accepts a rosary from their new big sister who then guides them through their first year of school at the academy. Some first year students don’t get big sisters while quite a few older students obviously aren’t involved either since there’s such a disparity in numbers. When the sisters are paired though, it can cause some problems as the actions of one reflect on the other, so there are pressures to be had by it. The benefits of it are apparent as well as you become more socially connected within the academy and become more involved in various organizations and activities.
For the opening of the series, we’re introduced to the basic ideas behind the school and a whole lot of French phrases revolving around the traditions and titles of many of the student council members and other elite characters. The characters we become closely tied to though are quickly apparent and ones that work well. The main focus is on that of Yumi, a first year student who like many others have a “crush” of sorts on one of the older students, a beautiful if cool young woman named Sachiko. Yumi ends up meeting her, something that’s photographed even, in a rare moment when Sachiko stops to help straighten Yumi’s collar. This starts a small series of events that brings the two of them together where Sachiko suddenly decides to take Yumi on as her little sister, something that certainly surprises Yumi and causes her to question exactly what’s going on.
Once the difficult area that starts the series is overcome and you have Sachiko and Yumi together as sisters, Maria Watches Over Us becomes a far more interesting show to watch. The nature of the series is one where it explores the relationships between these various girls as they have the three tiered nature of the Roses and all that it entails. This provides for a number of connections to be played with as everyone has a very different relationship with each other. Naturally, a good deal of the series revolves primarily around Yumi and Sachiko as they are the main draw. But there are many events that shape that view and we see them through the eyes of others at times. One strong instance of this is when another student, Mifuyu, gets involved in an event because of her shared time with Sachiko back in kindergarten.
While Yumi is ostensibly the lead character of the series, the real fascinating is in watching Sachiko and this bit of her past is a huge insight into her. Coming from an apparently wealthy family and not being exposed to the world, watching her during her kindergarten period at Lillian’s shows how she did her best to try and fit in with everyone while still maintaining the kind of grace and elegance that she’s being instructed with at home by all appearances. Her desire to fit in with both sides of the world is difficult and some of that surely explains her initial attitude when we first meet her. But as we get these more interesting moments about her, as well as seeing her going through a date with Yumi in which we see her meeting the adult world through fresh eyes, Sachiko becomes a far more engaging and curious character. Seeing how she and Yumi bond together over the course of this first season isn’t exactly magical, but it’s approaching it.
Like any series of this nature, and there are quite a few of them, Maria Watches Over Us runs through some fairly standard story ideas through which to show us these characters. The initial storyline revolving around the stage play of Cinderella and Sachiko’s distaste of performing with a young man isn’t a surprise. That we get a Valentine’s Day story isn’t a surprise nor that there is a subplot that leads to there being dates with the Roses by eager young first year students. Stories of the past come bubbling to the present, such as when a former student writes about her experiences there and the ideas behind it seemingly run parallel to certain events of the present. What makes all of these things work is that the core cast of characters are surprisingly engaging after the first couple of episodes but also in that it completely avoids the traps of many other shows.
There are no high moments of comedy or wild takes undergone by the characters. Occasionally you might have someone get wide-eyed and grimace a bit but that’s it. There are no supernatural elements here. Sachiko’s wealth doesn’t dominate the show. And Maria Watches Over Us doesn’t shy away from the kind of relationships that are obviously going on at times here either. We don’t have out and out sex scenes and for a lot of it we don’t even have really implied intimacy that we see in some other series. But what we have is the kind of bubbling under the covers kind of relationship material going on here, where there are strong feelings and people open to it if it actually breaks past some of the barriers and taboos that they may be feeling. Watching most of them struggle with this, as well as struggling with the elder Roses going through the process of moving on themselves, can be heartbreaking at times. When we do get some payoff in an expressed relationship, it’s even more heartbreaking because it feels so plainly and truly written.
When it comes to the visual design of the show, Maria Watches Over Us offers a lot of familiarity but also some very pleasant changes. With its private academy setting nestled in the trees, we get treated to a lot of beautiful scenes as it plays around the fall months and into the early winter. The school setting has its own kind of elegance to it, whether it’s the Rose Mansion itself or the greenhouse where some time is spent. Little time is spent within the actual classrooms, hardly a surprise, but what we do see fits in with many other shows but with small touches of added elegance here and there. Where Maria Watches Over Us excels is in its character designs. These young women feel very different from each other and they avoid certain traps as well. There’s hardly anything in the way of fanservice offered by them in terms of making them sexually attractive. They’re attractive enough young women in design, but they’re not flaunting it. In fact, going by the outfits they have and what little we see underneath them, they don’t have much to flaunt. They look human and realistic, not oversized caricatures of real women. The appeal in this is that it takes much of the focus off of that side of the equation and leaves us with what we’re really coming here for – the character drama.
Maria Watches Over Us isn’t the second coming of anything, but it is a surprisingly engaging show. With a number of series out at any time that deal in this particular genre – and several are out now as well as in recent years – what helps this one stand out is that it doesn’t play to particular fetishes. It sticks with the basics of being a girls relationship series, one that runs from simple sisterly love to something more. And it does it without being blunt, braze or overly sexual. It’s a quiet and restrained piece that wants to tell the story of these young women at a very challenging point in their lives and how they deal with it. While it has the basics of many other plots brought in and familiar settings, at the end of it all it’s the characters that are the draw and just about all of them are a draw here. There are a wealth of stories still to tell and this season leaves you eagerly wanting more of it, more of where they’re going and more of what their emotions and feelings will eventually reveal. And it cannot come fast enough. Very recommended for those looking for something of this nature.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Liner Notes, Character Bios, Bonus Stories
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.